Here's a question no one has yet asked. What is the F-35's anti-stealth capability?
Way back when America's stealth fighter, the F-22, and its poor cousin, America's stealth light bomber, the F-35, were conceived it was envisioned they would be operating against non-stealthy aerial opponents. One side had stealth, the other side didn't - advantage stealth.
But, as the stealth programmes became bogged down in endless delays and cost overruns (as is to be expected with any radically new technology), the world once in the F-35s designers' vision has changed.
What's changed? Plenty. First of all, the Americans allowed a lot of Lockheed's stealth technology to fall into the bad guy's hands when the Iranians were somehow able to force land an RQ-170 stealth drone in November, 2011. It didn't take the Chinese long to show up in Tehran to collect samples of materials, onboard stealth electronics and design features.
Then it dawned on the Russians that, while America's stealth technology was indeed pretty good at defeating the standard, X-band radar sets used on fighter aircraft, it was far less effective against the old, long array, L-band radar technology. And then it dawned on the Russians that they could fit those long L-band radar arrays in their fighters' wings. Oopsie.
And then it was the Chinese again hacking into Lockheed's and other defence contractors' computers and helping themselves to masses of F-35 data and secrets.
And look who else is already flying their own stealth fighters? Why, Russia and China and the Chinese, like the Americans, even have two stealth designs flying (one of which happens to look an awful lot like the F-35 only with the added advantage of twin engines). Plenty of other countries are also getting in on the stealth act - France, Britain, South Korea, Turkey - and who knows which nation will be next?
America's stealth warplanes are offensive weapons. The F-35 in particular is designed to penetrate heavily defended hostile territory, make a beeline to some high value target (hopefully undetected), bomb that target and then get out again just as quickly as possible.
The F-35 is not designed to loiter around for an aerial brawl. It has limited fuel and limited weaponry, just enough for the bombing job and that's about it. Worse still, the F-35's stealth is "straight line" stealth, frontal aspect only. It's quite detectable, even to X-band radar, from the sides or the back which, coupled with its single-engine vulnerability and other shortcomings, means it's not very good for the turn'n burn, Top Gun stuff. It also lacks the Holy Grail of 21st century super-fighters, Supercruise, which leaves it really vulnerable when it has to try to outrun pursuers.
The Joint Strike Fighter is already a bit long in the tooth. The development contract was signed in 1996. Lockheed got the nod in 2001. Now, in mid-2013, the F-35 is still in development and is not expected to be fully-operational until 2019.
The F-35 already has a weight problem. This is something that happens to many warplanes over the course of their service life as new gadgets come along that have to be added. With any luck the aircraft becomes more capable even as its performance slides a bit. Not so with the F-35. Lockheed has already fought the weight problem by removing fire-suppression equipment, stuff that's really not needed until it really is needed.
Another thing we don't really talk about much is how stealth performs in offensive and defensive roles. It might be far more helpful to the defender (i.e. a Chinese pilot), operating over home territory, than to someone flying an F-35 to a bombing target in enemy territory (i.e. China). The defender, after all, has less of a fuel problem and just needs to get in position to fire a missile or two or six and then go refuel and get more weapons. For the attacker, it's a come-as-you-are party. He doesn't get to refuel or re-arm. And, once he has dealt with the defender, he still has to proceed on to his bombing target and then get all the way back out again provided he has enough fuel, weaponry and luck to get out at all.
It all began as such a simple proposition - if he can't see me, he can't hit me and I can do as I like. It sounded like such a great idea at the time but the calculus has changed over the past dozen years and it will probably keep changing before the F-35 ever sees a Canadian hangar years from now.